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Fall Sneaks

The unseen horror

A film can frighten best with the power of suggestion, says a director who likes the genre's prospects.

September 07, 2003|Tobe Hooper | Special to The Times

"THERE'S a real resurgence in the horror genre, and 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' laid the foundation. Want to talk about the impact of your movie?" That was the gist of the invitation to write this piece, and at first I was reluctant -- it sounded like it could be a real exercise in self-congratulation. But after thinking about it, I realized that history is history: "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," to quote my friend Wes Craven, "was the movie that changed the genre of horror forever."

"Texas Chainsaw Massacre," based loosely on the same Wisconsin case that inspired "Psycho," was released in 1974, and its success unleashed a series of masked killers like "Halloween's" Michael Myers and "Friday the 13th's" Jason Voorhees, and all of their hacking, chopping, stabbing sequels.

The particular style of horror movie soon earned its own designation: The Slasher Film. This was as much of a surprise to my peers in horror as it was to me. The Slasher Film overlay helped rob the genre of its cinematic contributions and dignity and made it seem less than honorable -- even though it had become a thriving economic force in the industry. John Carpenter once said to me, "They think of us as pornographers."

"Chainsaw" was more complex than it seemed. It worked because it had three narratives. One was the framework that the story hangs on, another was what you learn in the interchange between the characters, and the third is the visual that stands on its own.

As the three weave together, the story forms in your imagination. For example, you know one of the subjects of the film is cannibalism, though the word "cannibalism" is never used nor does it take place except in your imagination.

The construction of "Chainsaw" was like this throughout, and it was what you didn't see that had the strongest impact. The same applies for the gore that audiences thought they saw in quantity. That was also suggestion.

When the character Pam is hung on a meat hook, just the idea of that was powerful enough. There was a shot that pans down her body that hangs over a wash tub that was supposed to catch her blood, and audiences thought they saw it filling up. But there was no blood.

Leatherface worked as a human monster because imagining what his face is like is far more powerful than actually seeing it. This can be said about the construction of the entire film, co-written with Kim Henkel. The real horror of the film is psychological. For the most part, gore is only suggested.

Humor also plays an important part in the film's psychology. The ironic, dark humor is something people didn't always get when the movie first came out. For example, after Leatherface wrecks the door to the family's home in pursuit of Sally, another character observes, "Look what your brother's done to the door." Years later, it has been gratifying to hear audiences laughing enthusiastically at that line and many others.

Fast-forward almost 30 years. The cycle has turned, and on the old foundation the horror film is once again in season. Horror has cycled its way back into respectability, probably because it is in demand.

And the new crop of films looks great. Eli Roth's "Cabin Fever," about a group of kids who spend a weekend in a remote cabin and contract a particularly nasty virus, is way cool and scary. This is the kind of horror that is grounded in known reality.

This kind of "it really could happen" movie had my guts tied up in knots and put me through the scare-thrill ringer. Victor Salvo's "Jeepers Creepers 2" is truly a bat out of hell, and Rob Zombie's "House of 1000 Corpses" is a celebration of horror and a fun ride. Director Tim Sullivan is working on "2001 Maniacs," which explores madness in an exciting way. These films may be more graphic than mine, but their psychology is what makes them scary and fun.

Director Mick Garris has taken time on top of a busy career to establish a group called "Masters of Horror." This informal group of directors includes many of those working in the genre, people like Craven, Carpenter, Salvo, Roth, John Landis, Guillermo del Toro, Stuart Gordon, Lucky McKee, Dario Argento and others.

We have dinner periodically so that all the genre directors know what one another is doing, and our work can evolve. We learn from each other through osmosis.

Salvo, Sullivan and Roth are great new directors who understand the alchemy of this house-of-cards genre. They know how to play with smoke and mirrors. The new crop of films looks to be on target, and I think audiences are in for a great thrill ride.

I spoke at a screening of "Chainsaw" a few weeks ago at the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre. In a question-answer period, I was reminded that some of the audience didn't know the film was originally an art film of sorts that received respectable reviews. It was shown at the Directors Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival and has been added to the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art.

In October, first-time feature director Marcus Nispel's remake of "Chainsaw" will hit theaters. Also in October, the USA Film Festival in Dallas is paying homage to the original "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," calling it "a landmark motion picture unlike any horror movie that came before it, and [that] influenced every film of that genre made since."

Those who scoff at the notion of horror movies as a worthwhile pursuit might consider this. Many years ago, William Friedkin and I discovered that we shared the perspective that the cinema can be a forum to release our anxieties about real-world horror in a safe place. There's something to be said for that.

Tobe Hooper is in post-production on his next horror movie, "The Toolbox Murders." In addition to features, the director has numerous television credits, including episodes of "Steven Spielberg's Taken," "Nowhere Man" and the pilot for "Dark Skies."

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